Love, marriage and banana trees in rural Tamil Nadu

Post was created on March 19th, 2011

Marriage and love in rural Tamil Nadu can be a complicated matter, especially when values and material expectations are rapidly changing. Arranged marriages are still the norm in India, where parents find a ‘match’ for the ‘girl’ and the ‘boy’ – for this is how the bride and groom are always referred to, regardless their age.

Ramu, a 30-year-old man from a village near Pondicherry, cannot ‘find a girl’ (as a wife) despite looking for one year, even though he is acknowledged by his peers as ‘of very good character’. Born into a poor family, Ramu is considered a somewhat inauspicious marriage prospect because his father died two years ago after years of heavy drinking and unemployment. Whilst his mother is in healthy middle age, widows are considered to be bad luck and of very low status, so this is not an attractive notion for prospective daughters-in-law. Ramu left school at 16, in order to support his family by working as a painter and labourer. On his meagre wages, he put his two younger brothers through university, and they both now work as accountants. Whilst the brothers will have no problems finding a girl because their qualifications and earning capacity will outweigh their mother’s bad luck, Ramu continues to be rejected by girls’ families because of their rising expectations in an emergent economy. The boy is now expected to have a college degree, a good job with a good income, good looks and a good physique. Ramu fails their expectations on educational and income grounds, and these handicaps are not offset by the fact he honourably fulfilled family duties whilst compromising his own long-term prospects. Ramu points out that character and personality are less of a consideration for girls’ families these days than ticking all the material boxes.

village Tamil youths

The marriage market can be brutal, and it should be acknowledged that Ramu also rejected four out of ten girls because he didn’t like their looks. He had an approximately five-second glance on which to base his decision. Imagine the scenario: he goes with his family to the girl’s family’s house and sits with the parents whilst both families put forward the merits of the boy and the girl. The girl gets called in to deliver tea, and he gets a fleeting glance on which he has to decide his interest. Ramu is too shy to ask for the girl to return to the room so that he can take a better look. If both parties decide to move to the next step (negotiations, astrology charts etc), photos are often obtained of the boy and the girl after this meeting. Ramu shows me photos of girls he has met and is willing to marry. Often the girls have qualifications, and he acknowledges his lack of tertiary education would be a trade off for them if he earned a lot of money. But even the fact that he requests no dowry does not make him an attractive prospect in a process because girls’ families oncreasingly want to give a sizeable dowry to signify their rising prosperity.

Dowry ‘demands’ are often made from the boy’s side, and the expectations and requests grow bigger each year. Whilst a Hero Honda motorbike, some white goods and some gold set the urban middle classes chattering in approval ten years ago, this is now a standard dowry from a girl’s family in poor village Tamil Nadu. Goods and giving practices that are popular in the cities – such as gifting cars or registered NGOs (to channel illegally appropriated funds) to grooms – are mimicked a few years later in the rural areas. Village girls’ families now may go into massive debt to provide a car to the boy. A friend of Ramu’s did not complete high school, but because he is from a rich family, he was accepted in marriage by a girl with a college degree who gave a car and 800grams in gold as a dowry. Sometimes the boy may be politically reconstructed via NGO awareness work and will refuse dowry, but the girl’s family will insist on providing it, because of the prestige gained in the village from giving an impressive dowry.

This area of Tamil Nadu was very poor until recently, but due to the its proximity to the international township of Auroville, there has been a huge surge in education levels over the last two decades, and – unlike their illiterate parents – the younger generations are completing school and getting college degrees. Marriages are being postponed, and now usually take place when the boy is around 27-32 years, and the girl is 21-25 years. The girl and boy need to come from the same caste, and should come either from the same or a neighbouring village.

Astrological compatibility is also a must. If the families decide to move forward after ‘viewing the girl’, the next step is to get an astrological chart drawn up to assess the couple’s suitability. One ‘side’ (ie. the boy’s or girl’s family) volunteers to oversee this process, as they may have a favoured astrologer. They may then report back to the other side that the charts did not match. It is often understood that this may be a polite cover to extricate themselves from further negotiations without having to state the real reasons, such as a change of heart or the entry of a more promising suitor.

People born under unfavourable star signs are considered ‘manglik’, or bad luck, and therefore ‘inauspicious’ to marry. The India media was flooded with reports that ‘manglik’ Bollywood movie star Aishwarya Rai was married off to a banana tree prior to her 2007 marriage to fellow movie star Abhishek Bachchan, so that the tree could absorb her bad luck. The (urban middle-class) media was aghast that members of the Indian elite who are supposedly representative of the nation’s global values were prey to superstitious notions and were endorsing the ‘backward’ ways of rural India through such actions.

Ramu and his brothers don’t believe in astrology, but they got into a tricky situation when marriage negotiations started with a lady in their village who had a daughter of suitable age for Ramu. After the initial viewing of the girl, both sides agreed they would like to proceed and confirmed they didn’t believe in the need for astrological charts. They discussed announcing the engagement within two weeks. However, Ramu heard through a neighbour that the girl had a boyfriend. He managed to meet her discreetly, and she confirmed she was in love with another man but couldn’t tell her parents as she feared their disapproval and anger. Wanting to save both himself and the girl from an unhappy marriage, and needing an excuse to extricate himself at a fairly advanced stage of negotiations, Ramu told the girl’s mother he’d had astrological charts done and they didn’t match. The mother – who worked in the same organisation as Ramu’s youngest brother – made a ruckus in the village and workplace, accusing the family of contradictory behaviour and of reneging on an engagement. At last report, the daughter still hadn’t told the mother of her boyfriend.

Secret lovers are a common phenomenon in this part of Tamil Nadu, which leads to a high number of ‘escapes’ (elopements). Parents may disapprove of their child’s choice on a number of grounds: their background, character, financial status, qualifications, job or caste. There are only two castes in Ramu’s village – Vanniyar and Dalit (formerly called untouchable). Marrying someone of the same caste is essential, and it’s preferable to marry a close relation, ie. for a girl to marry a first cousin or uncle (mother’s brother’s son or mother’s brother). Health experts in Tamil Nadu tell me that there is a high rate of mental retardation in areas where this is practised. Additionally, certain people in Ramu’s Vanniyar caste are designated as classificatory ‘sisters’ or ‘brothers’, and therefore banned to certain others as ‘wrong’ for marriage as it would upset the village land inheritance system – so this restriction reduces the pool of eligible marriage prospects.

Ramu’s middle brother, Rakesh, was recently involved in month-long negotiations between the two families involved in an ‘escape’ which culminated in a ‘wrong marriage’. Rakesh was friends with the ‘boy’, although he knew nothing about the escape until it happened. The boy and the girl became romantically involved when they were volunteers in the village community centre. They escaped to the nearby city, got married in a temple, and managed to elude their families’ attempts to find them for four weeks. Once they got in touch, Rakesh then mediated with the girl’s family, who were still smarting from the same daughter’s escape with another boy three years earlier. That time, the family managed to find her, bring her home and persuaded her to drop her interest in the boy, despite the fact he was from the same caste. The second escape with was a boy considered her ‘brother’ and therefore a ‘wrong’ marriage, but after the daughter’s absence of four weeks, the family was finally forced to acknowledge the marriage. In order to save face and to redeem the marriage chances of their younger daughters, the parents demanded that the escaped couple’s marriage ceremony be repeated in their local temple. They told the boy that they would merely untie the already-in-place thaali (marriage necklace) on the girl minutes before the ritual, and then re-tie in the presence of all the guests. Smelling a rat, and imagining his wife would be whisked away from him the moment the thaali was removed, the groom refused to do this, and offered to undertake a village wedding reception instead. Rakesh was sent back and forth between the families for some weeks, playing the middle man in negotiations until the groom finally acquiesced and underwent a second temple ceremony in public to everyone’s relief.

Sometimes in instances of ‘escapes’, the girls’ parents may go to the police and file a case of kidnapping against the boy. This is to ensure that when the couple is found, the police will interview the girl and establish if she has been coerced. In theory, if the girl has not acted against her will, the case will be dropped and the couple will be allowed to leave. But, in north India at least, there are many stories of the girl’s parents bribing the police to detain the boy and to release the girl back into the parents’ hands. In the most extreme cases in north India, young escaped couples are murdered – by hired thugs, families, the police, or traditional village councils. In the areas around Delhi last year, there was a rash of these so-called honour killings, which are attributed to multi-layered factors.

Rakesh points out that in his part of south India, there were more escapes ten years ago because young people were more scared of parental authority. These days, youths are more likely to confront their parents and to persuade them of the validity of their choice over time. Sometimes escapes happen after marriage, for example, if a girl is too fearful to tell her parents about her boyfriend before her arranged marriage to someone else. If a girl runs away after marriage to be with her lover, the angry groom’s family will visit her family and return the dowry but insist that all their wedding expenses are met. The shame brought by such incidents is often long lasting. If the girl’s relationship with her boyfriend does not work out, her family may not take her back and it is difficult for her to marry again. However for men, there is little stigma over a failed first marriage, and second marriages (ie. polygamy, where the first wife is not divorced) are common in Tamil Nadu, even though they are illegal.

A recent phenomenon is that of the NRI (Non Resident Indian) prospective groom, who visits India whilst on holiday from his job in the west, and does multiple viewings of girls within a week or two. He then marries one of them in a hastily arranged but often lavish wedding, and returns to the west and initiates the paperwork to bring over his new bride. Padma, a 25-year-old translator I worked with recently in a large town in Tamil Nadu, had recently undergone this dramatic transition in her life with no warning. After her final exams for her masters degree, she received a phone call from a man she didn’t know, who asked her how her exams went. Her mother then told her the man lived and worked in Canada as a restaurant manager and was about to come to their town to meet suitable girls from their caste and community. Three weeks later she was married to him and he’d left the country. She soon discovered she was pregnant, and agreed with her husband to remain in India until after the baby is born. Whilst Padma is confident that she will adjust to life with her new husband in a country a long way away from her family, brides to NRI grooms in the Punjab in north India cannot be so confident. This latter area has developed a history in the last two decades of NRI grooms visiting their homeland for a couple of months, marrying a girl in order to gain dowry goods, and then returning to the west with promises to ‘arrange the papers’ for the bride’s migration, only to disappear.

Thankfully, this practice is not common in Tamil Nadu. Whilst Ramu faces difficulties in finding a suitable girl who will prioritise his character over his income, he remains optimistic that the right girl will be found in time. Each time I see him, he recounts some reason as to why the negotiations faded out with the family of the girl in the last photo. He says he must find a girl soon because his brother Rakesh has a girlfriend and the two wish to marry soon in order to stem the village gossip about their relationship, and as the eldest brother, Ramu must marry before his brothers can.  He also concedes the close village scrutiny of his situation, where everyone talks of his difficulties in finding a girl, and says he wants to get married so that he is no longer the focus of attention.

See also Santosh Desai – The logic of arranged marriage in India



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